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Personally Opposed, but… December 01, 2003

What do you call a Catholic who says that he is "personally opposed" to some form of immoral behavior, but refuses to take action against it?

Under some circumstances, you call him Your Eminence.

For years I have been bewildered by the public statements of Catholic politicians who claim to be "personally opposed" to legal abortion, or physician-assisted suicide, or same-sex marriage, but nevertheless vote in favor of these policies. From a strictly logical perspective, their position is incoherent.

"You can't legislate morality!" the slick politicians tell us. But of course we can legislate morality; we do it all the time. Our laws against murder, slavery, and fraud are based on moral judgments.

Granted, it may be imprudent for a secular society to legislate matters of sectarian religious interest, such as dietary laws or Sabbath observance. But the "personally opposed" argument is always raised with regard to issues of fundamental moral law, which transcend sectarian differences.

Christians oppose abortion not because of some peculiar ritual or mystical rule, but they say that abortion involves the taking of a human life. This is a statement of fact, not of religious belief. It is either true or untrue. A politician who thinks the statement untrue would have no compelling reason even to be "personally" opposed to abortion. (He would find it difficult to defend his own position on a scientific basis, but that is another matter.) A legislator who recognizes that abortion is a form of killing should also recognize his obligation to curb the bloodshed. A purely "personal" opposition is morally indefensible. Yet Catholic politicians persist in trotting out these same lame arguments.

Several weeks ago, I began a quest to trace the lineage of these specious arguments, and try to determine who was responsible for introducing this line of (il)logic. My search took me back beyond Mario Cuomo, beyond Ted Kennedy, to Richard Cushing—also known as Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston.

THE YEAR: 1965

Early in the summer of 1965, the Massachusetts legislature took up a proposal to repeal the state's Birth Control law, which barred the use of contraceptives. (As a matter of historical interest, the repeal effort was sponsored by a young state representative named Michael Dukakis, who would be the Democratic Party's candidate for the US presidency 23 years later.) In a state where Catholics constituted a voting majority, and dominated the legislature, the prospects for repeal appeared remote. Then on June 22, Cardinal Cushing appeared on a local radio program, "An Afternoon with Haywood Vincent,” and effectively scuttled the opposition.

Cardinal Cushing announced:

My position in this matter is that birth control in accordance with artificial means is immoral, and not permissible. But this is Catholic teaching. I am also convinced that I should not impose my position—moral beliefs or religious beliefs—upon those of other faiths.

Warming to the subject, the cardinal told his radio audience that "I could not in conscience approve the legislation" that had been proposed. However, he quickly added, "I will make no effort to impose my opinion upon others."

So there it was: the "personally opposed" argument, in fully developed form, enunciated by a Prince of the Church nearly 40 years ago! Notice how the unvarying teaching of the Catholic Church, which condemned artificial contraception as an offense against natural law, is reduced here to a matter of the cardinal's personal belief. And notice how he makes no effort to persuade legislators with the force of his arguments; any such effort is condemned in advance as a bid to "impose" his opinion.

Cardinal Cushing conceded that in the past, Catholic leaders had opposed any effort to alter the Birth Control law. "But my thinking has changed on that matter," he reported, "for the simple reason that I do not see where I have an obligation to impose my religious beliefs on people who just do not accept the same faith as I do."

(Notice that the Catholic position is reduced still further here, to a matter of purely sectarian belief—as if it would be impossible for a non-Catholic to support the purpose of the Birth Control law. The cardinal did not explain why that law was enacted in 1899 by the heirs of the Puritans in Massachusetts, long before Catholics came to power in the legislature.)

Before the end of his fateful radio broadcast, Cardinal Cushing gave his advice to the Catholic members of the Massachusetts legislature: "If your constituents want this legislation, vote for it. You represent them. You don't represent the Catholic Church."

Dozens of Catholic legislators did vote for the bill, and the Birth Control law was abolished. Perhaps more important in the long run, the "personally opposed" politician had his rationale.

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